Failure is an essential part of learning

Children’s interpretation of success may affect their learning
Mosieur-J-version-9-1,, CC BY 2.0
Mosieur-J-version-9-1,, CC BY 2.0

Parents are often tempted to shield their children from negative experiences, like losing a game, because they think it will help their children’s self-esteem and confidence. However, some recent research from The Child Learning and Development Lab at Amherst College suggests that children who only experience success may be less sensitive to important information in the world around them.

In our research, we asked a group of 4- and 5-year-olds to play a searching game with two adults who appeared on a computer screen. These adults took turns hiding objects in one of two locations from behind a cardboard screen. Next, children were asked to locate where the object had been hidden. During the game, one adult was always helpful: she always provided a clue about the location of an object she had just hidden before children were asked to search. The other adult was never helpful: she never provided information about where she had hidden objects.

For half of the children, this experience meant that they were more likely to find hidden objects (i.e., be more successful) when they played the searching game with the helpful adult than with the unhelpful one. This also meant these children experienced both some success and some failure during the game. For the other half of children, we rigged the searching game so that no matter where they searched, they were always correct. Therefore, this half of children only experienced success during the game and no matter who children played the game with, they always found the hidden objects.

Later, we asked both groups of children about which adult they would like to have help them with searching games in the future. Similar to previous work on how children identify good sources of information, those who had experienced some success and some failure preferred the help of the previously helpful adult, and could identify that adult as having been helpful in the past. This suggests that these children were sensitive to differences in the two adults, and preferred the one who had been the better source of information in the past.

However, children who had only been successful during the searching game showed no preference for one adult over another, and could not actually identify one adult as having been more helpful in the past. This suggests that success prevented these children from identifying which adult had been a better source of information previously. Interestingly, children who failed just once during the searching game were much more sensitive to differences in the adults they had played with, suggesting that even very limited negative experience boosted children’s sensitivity to who had been a better source of information in the past.

It’s all in how children interpret their success

We believe that the reason successful children were less sensitive to differences in potential sources of information was because their success had built up their sense of control over the course of the searching game. That is, because the always successful children repeatedly found the hidden objects, they assumed that they could succeed at the game without the help of either adult, and therefore, did not focus on differences in how those adults had provided information in the past.

This pattern of thinking may be surprising to adults given that when they had been playing the hiding game with the unhelpful adult, children were actually playing a game of chance: they had no information about the location of the hidden object. Indeed, unless someone was to develop x-ray vision, there is no way to have control over correctly identifying in which of two opaque cups an object is hidden. Why then, might 4- and 5-year-olds believe that they have control over a game of chance?

“Because children may not always understand the reasons for their success, experiencing a great deal of it may actually lead them to be less savvy learners.”

One reason for this could be that children under the age of eight have a great deal of difficulty understanding luck and games of chance. They often assume that skill or ability can affect the outcomes of tasks that only involve luck. Therefore, the preschoolers in our study may not have been aware of the luck involved in their interactions with the unhelpful adult, and inappropriately assumed that their success was indicative of a particular skill they had.

This result was interesting for a few reasons: First, while many researchers argue that children are very sensitive to others’ characteristics, and that they monitor these characteristics to identify good sources of information, our data suggest that certain experiences may lead children to be less sensitive to others’ attributes, or even ignore them.

Second, this work suggests that because children may not always understand the reasons for their success, experiencing a great deal of it may actually lead them to be less savvy learners, in that they ignore important information that could affect their future learning (e.g., who had been more helpful in the past). Finally, this finding suggests that negative experiences, just as negative emotions as suggested by Julia Moeller in her recent post, may be important for children’s learning.


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